Money Lessons I Learned From My Single Mother

When my mom unexpectedly became a single parent, she had to pivot big time and learn to manage—and stretch—the household budget. And she taught me lifelong finance lessons along the way.

Photo: Getty Images. Jillian Sellers.

When my father unexpectedly became ill and passed away, my mother was thrust into a new world of single parenthood and had to quickly adapt. Before this, the subject of money hadn't been controversial in our family, but it was never something that seemed like it really needed to be discussed. It was only after my dad passed away that it became not only sensible but essential for my mother to start discussing money with my sister and I—and teaching us valuable lessons that have molded my financial decision-making to this day.

My mother was particularly honest and open with me, her eldest child, about the state of our finances. Still, even with this inside info, I never felt worried. We were always loved, fed, cared for, and while my mother endeavored to make sure that we lived realistically and within our means, we still had fun. Along the way, she managed to instill lifelong lessons on finance.

Why saving matters so much

The first thing my mother ever taught me about money was the importance of savings. The value of having a nest egg, a rainy day fund (or whatever you like to call it) has been an essential part of my finances ever since. When I started working my first job, I would put half of my paycheck into a savings account. I felt almost jittery with excitement when I saw my savings building up with each payment.

When my mother taught me about savings, she also taught me about freedom—and that little bit of security that comes when you've saved enough cushion to deal with something going wrong.

Learning to save and being able to view and manage your finances is easier than ever, with countless apps and sites that can help make it such a simple process. Educating your kids and getting them set up with a good saving system will ensure that they always have some form of financial back-up.

The real value of money

One of the hardest things to learn about money when you're a kid is its true value. When you first start earning money from a job or a weekly allowance, the first thing you're likely tempted to do is spend it. And while teaching kids about saving is key, teaching them how and when to spend it is equally important.

Something my mother taught us was the value of saving up for longer periods and then spending more on a higher-quality item—rather than spending frivolously on something that wouldn't last. To a kid, this can be a frustrating concept. Why should I spend more of my money later, when I can buy something now for cheaper? But long-term savings and spending plans also introduce the concept of investing in something rather than just buying things.

There are two lessons to be learned here. One: It is more rewarding and sensible to save up for a higher-quality version of an item—and it will save you money in the long run since you won't have to replace it as quickly due to breakage or wearing out. Two: Saving more and having a little patience makes you appreciate the item even more. Another plus in teaching kids this concept is that after they wait long enough, they often find they don't really want to buy that thing after all.

Only borrow what you can pay back ASAP

The concept of credit cards terrified me when I was growing up. I had seen too many debt-driven story lines in television shows and movies to get past the idea that credit cards were evil and to be avoided at all costs. But it was through my mother's lessons that I realized that not only were credit cards not some evil trick aimed to fleece me, but that they're also entirely necessary to build credit and be able to build a financial history.

The idea of credit in general can be very confusing. While it's not something that younger children necessarily need to be directly aware of, it's a good idea to help them understand the notion of borrowing. By having that conversation with my mother about how credit worked and how to safely and responsibly use a credit card, I was able to slowly but surely start to build a decent credit score and create financial confidence.

Track your budget, expenses, and more

My mother is the most organized person I know. Every morning, she sits down at the dining table with an army of brightly colored notebooks and pads on which she plans her life. She schedules her week, keeps to-do lists, and stores notebooks with phone numbers that she hasn't called in 10 years. This also applies to her finances, and it works.

It's easy to forget that money is just numbers—and numbers are a lot easier to manage when they're all written down in front of you. Whenever I find myself struggling to budget for the month or keep above my expenses, I resort to writing it all down and working it out that way.

By teaching your kids to develop budgeting plans and keeping tabs on their income and expenses, the whole idea of managing money suddenly seems a lot more doable. As we grow up, the list of expenses seemingly gets bigger and bigger, but if this approach has been used from a young age, then it's a lot easier to understand. If you take a (colorful) page from my mother's book, you'll also find that it can be a somewhat fun and personalized process.

Ultimately, there is no wrong way to talk to your kids about money. There are plenty of guides and resources out there to help you get the conversation started. Really, the only way you can fail is by not talking to them about money at all.

For single parents, the money talk may feel like even more of a Herculean task, particularly if you are struggling financially. Children of single parents already have to grow up faster than other kids on an emotional and psychological level, but that doesn't mean we should avoid talking to them about something so important and vital to adulthood as money.

When you talk about finance openly, it will seem like less of a scary concept to your kids. After all, you want them to be able to feel comfortable coming to you and asking questions or sharing worries about money—instead of hiding them.

My sister and I have grown into financially educated and responsible people. For this, we have our mother to thank. At a time when addressing our financial situation was likely stressful and emotional for her, she still made the effort to be frank and honest, and we are all the better for it.

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